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Monday, February 23, 2009

The Gershwin Prize

The Library of Congress has long been a sponsor of contemporary music, and through the auspices of several patrons such as the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation, composers of concert music have found much needed financial support for their projects. The list of composers who have received funding is impressive. The Foundation’s website contains an impressive roster of past recipients:

But for reasons that are not entirely clear, the Directors of the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation and the Library of Congress have suspended the commissioning program for 2009 while they conduct a comprehensive review of the Foundation's activities. Who knows where this will lead.

While composers and performance organizations are required to make a formal application for the Koussevitzky award, a new program for the commissioning of contemporary concert music at the Library of Congress selects composers to be commissioned outright. Two years ago the Gershwin Prize was created by the Library of Congress “to honor artists whose creative output transcends distinctions between musical styles and idioms, bringing diverse listeners together, and fostering mutual understanding and appreciation” and in 2007 Paul Simon, received the first Gershwin Prize.

Tonight, the Library of Congress will premiere a new classical work by Stevie Wonder. The 58 year old composer will hear the first performance of his chamber orchestra work in an invitation-only concert at the library's Coolidge Auditorium. The 20 minute concerto is titled "Sketches of Life" and scored for a combination of instruments: two pianos (with Wonder performing on one of them while doubling on the chromatic harmonica), harp, percussion, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, and a string section comprised of six violins, two violas, two cellos, and two contra-bass.
"Stevie Wonder has been very engaged, very excited about this work," said Susan H. Vita, chief of the Library of Congress Music Division which commissioned the piece in conjunction with the awarding of the prize.

The work was written over the years 1976-94, and is said to be influenced by not only pop music, but Mozart and Dvořák. His piece was described as "a sprawling, magnificent hybrid pop-classical concerto."

We offer our congratulations to both Paul and Stevie, and welcome them into the competitive “dog-eat-dog” world of contemporary chamber music. It’s clear that the public has supported their musical activities over the past decades. Now they are officially contributors to the ever expanding repertory of contemporary American concert music, and we welcome them into the big tent. One would hope that the public attention that your work brings to the fore will advance the cause of modern chamber music for all.

2/27/09 Update: Link to the review in the Washington Times: